Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Gastronome's Dilemma

Gastronome. I heard this word and its derivatives countless times in France. In looking for an official translation, the words epicure and foodie surfaced often. When living in a foreign place and learning a foreign language, you find that there are many terms and ideas which are so deeply rooted to the culture, that there is no possible way to communicate a proper translation to someone of a different culture.

Over the course of my stay, I came to understand the meaning of this idea, more than a word, to mean a connoisseur of the general things about quality food. This translation STILL does not do it justice. There is an energy and passion behind food in France that I've only ever experienced in our culture by hunting or gardening.

They have a profound sense of wanting to know the origin of their food. The idea of industrialized food is becoming more mainstream with influences like us, but the vast majority of people find the idea of buying a food out of season or from another country, repulsive.

I can't convey to you how many times I walked by stacks and mounds of tomatoes or oranges in February that no one had touched at the grocery stores. Organic foods are the first to disappear from shelves and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are banned all across Europe.

I really had no idea or information about any of this prior to my departure from the US. My understanding was that buying whole, fresh fruits, grains, etc. were what I was supposed to do if I didn't have a garden.

Meat is a different story. My family has always been a unit of avid hunters, therefore, buying much meat outside of the price to rent a deer lease was rarely done. My host family in France gave me, no, offered me a polite and quiet education about organics.

My second morning living with them, was spent in an open-air market where, in January, winter produce, like chards, meats, cheeses and baked goods were what was available to buy. We moseyed along, buying ewe's cheese that looked, and smelled, like toe-jam, baked biscuits that weren't wrapped or even handled with gloves and lettuces still covered in dirt. I also proceeded to buy a gallette filled with an half-cooked egg and unpasteurized cheese.

To be brutally honest, I would have NEVER done any of those things in the US. The sole reasons for which I was not immediately grossed-out were simply that I was fiercely jet-lagged, completely un-acclimatized and open to every new experience. A few days later, an impromptu soiree brought friends, fresh scallops and raw oysters together for dinner. I scarfed the scallops, but refused the raw oysters, citing that I'd had salmonella in 2008.

All of them stopped and stared at me, as if I had brought back the plague single-handedly and laid it down on their dining room table! The concept of food contamination is so rare, it's almost foreign to them. I explained that I believed I'd gotten it from a certain American fast-food chain during a tomato outbreak and have done everything possible since to never eat fast-food again.  

Another incident was standing in the kitchen with my host mother as she fitfully cursed and went on a rant to my host father. Confused, I asked what happened, and she proceeded to tell me that the people from whom she'd bought some Camembert had given her the wrong one. She'd wanted the one WITHOUT the pasteurized milk and that the taste was completely wrong. She also informed me that cheese made from raw milk is the most beneficial to your digestive system. This is how I mean they gently educated me about organic and local foods.

Later, she showed me the shower, the hair products, invited me to use them, her saponin seeds (she didn't even know the name, since the information on the bag was in German, she just said a friend recommended them and they work, so why does it matter?) and geranium oil that washed our clothes, all of these seemingly "new-fangled" ideas that have been around for centuries all over the world, I was just hearing about. She would smile sheepishly and say, "yeah, this is a little weird, but it's completely bio-degradable" or "yeah, it smells funny, but it's really good for you."

I never questioned her methods and blindly followed to test the results, every time being happily surprised. Which finally rounds me to my point. Upon my arrival back in the States, I began paying attention to my groceries, doing research and becoming informed.

I'll be honest. I went into a panic when I read what I read. I was angry with myself for never having put together the fact that my mother is allergic to practically every refined and manufactured drug and preservative under the Nutritional Facts labels on our foods, that I had chronic auto-immune problems and that my whole family has blood-sugar and thyroid problems.

Exercise is important, as is fresh air and proper water consumption, but food, oh food is the doozy. I've had modern medicine fail me many times, heal me too, but mostly fail. I felt that I couldn't trust doctors, because I'm a numbered chart to them. I felt that I wasn't being protected by my own government, (I advise you to read this CNN poll) then I'd found that the sustenance from which my body derives life-giving energy was also unsafe.

As a gastronome, I had a dilemma.

Miraculously, my research and some happenstance led me to wonderful companies, and I began feeling better. I switched my family to all organic, as local as possible foods and have been so ecstatic with the results. My husband and I had a pow-wow and after explaining my research, he agreed that it's worth the price tag.

 I confess that we are currently living on a very tight budget, but are still able to do it. I plan our meals a week in advance and have been baking and freezing the fruits of my labor, to eliminate the time-crunch of eating the goods before they stale. It not only has taught us to appreciate the food, but also evaluate our hunger at any given moment.

Husband told me this morning, as I was teaching him how to whip up some biscuits, that he woke up earlier and teared-up at the sight of milk in our fridge, because he was so appreciative to have it. I asked what spurred the thought, and he just shook his head and said that he has just been thinking about what it would be like to suddenly go without things like food. The guy makes me think. All the time.

Still, I confess to being a total closet farmer. A dream would be to buy a small piece of used and abused land, rebuild the soil and raise a milk cow and goats, chickens and all of the fruits and veggies under the sun, as well as my family. For now, I'll settle with my growing (no pun intended) herb garden in my living room.


I realize you may be wondering what sparked this fervent soap box. I watched the Academy Award Nominated documentary Food Inc and was nauseated within the first few minutes, but watched the duration. It is my opinion that everyone in this country should watch it and reevaluate their food habits. Reevaluate the amount you spend on food. Understand the cost of your health and the health of nature. Understand the scarcity of quality food in our current system and that our money protects those who are essentially destroying the land, our bodies and the integrity of good farmers.

I know where my budget goes and am proud to say that even though it's tight and small, it makes at least a little difference.



  1. I totally agree with you. After spending a summer in Germany I felt the same way. I came back forever changed. I had a few years where I fell back into the SAD way of life and paid dearly with my health. Now we are fully back where we belong... organic, raw dairy, natural whole foods life. We would rather pay more for good food and less for doctor bills... which by the way we don't have any more. Got myself off all meds for asthma and allergies now for the past 4 years... hope we stay this way for a long time.

  2. Wow! That's amazing about your asthma and allergies, congratulations! I have also had medical issues become less frequent, including ovarian cysts and hypoglycemia. Stress-relieving exercises and an organic diet have saved my husband and me many doctor bills.

  3. Awwrrrr! Miss Priss is inspecting the organic garlic. Amazing post, Love. This is my new name/account BTW. The other is---well, you know---so 2011. Thank you for the yet another amazing post and thank you for forgiving me for a (very) late post. Keep them coming!